United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld Dies in a Plane Crash Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Dag Hammarskjöld was killed as his plane crashed en route to negotiate a cease-fire in the protracted Congo crisis. His activist legacy of personal, quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy in trying to fill a constitutional, legislative, and precedential void set a high standard for those who followed in his footsteps.

Summary of Event

A few minutes after midnight on the morning of September 18, 1961, the chartered Swedish Transair Company DC-6 four-engine aircraft carrying Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld from the Congolese capital of Léopoldville (now Kinshasa) to Ndola, Northern Rhodesia (now in Zambia), crashed on its descent to the airport. Sixteen individuals, including Hammarskjöld, his U.N. entourage, and the airplane’s crew, were killed. The most common belief is that the aircraft’s approach to the airport was too low, and its wheels got snagged by some tree branches on a ridge near the landing field. Secretariat, U.N. United Nations;secretariat Aircraft;crashes [kw]United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld Dies in a Plane Crash (Sept. 18, 1961)[United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld Dies in a Plane Crash] [kw]Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld Dies in a Plane Crash, United Nations (Sept. 18, 1961)[Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld Dies in a Plane Crash, United Nations] [kw]Hammarskjöld Dies in a Plane Crash, United Nations Secretary-General Dag (Sept. 18, 1961) [kw]Plane Crash, United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld Dies in a (Sept. 18, 1961) Secretariat, U.N. United Nations;secretariat Aircraft;crashes [g]Africa;Sept. 18, 1961: United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld Dies in a Plane Crash[07040] [g]Rhodesia;Sept. 18, 1961: United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld Dies in a Plane Crash[07040] [g]Nyasaland;Sept. 18, 1961: United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld Dies in a Plane Crash[07040] [g]Zambia;Sept. 18, 1961: United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld Dies in a Plane Crash[07040] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Sept. 18, 1961: United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld Dies in a Plane Crash[07040] [c]United Nations;Sept. 18, 1961: United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld Dies in a Plane Crash[07040] [c]Organizations and institutions;Sept. 18, 1961: United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld Dies in a Plane Crash[07040] Hammarskjöld, Dag Lumumba, Patrice O’Brien, Conor Cruise Tshombe, Moïse

Unlike all the other occupants, Hammarskjöld seems to have been thrown clear of the aircraft, perhaps because it was not his habit to fasten his seat belt. Apparently, too, he managed to crawl to a rock and prop himself up before dying from internal injuries. His was the only body that was untouched by fire. A U.N. guard, Harold Julien Julien, Harold , was found alive by the rescue party, wandering about in a delirious and incoherent state. He fell into a coma and died four days later.

The U.N. Commission of Investigation, appointed by the U.N. General Assembly on December 8, 1961, submitted its final report on May 2, 1962. It concluded that, while the cause of the accident did not appear to be sabotage, an attack by a hostile aircraft, or even mechanical failure, none of these could definitively be ruled out any more than could pilot error. A report on the crash by the government of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland issued in early 1962 reached largely the same conclusions. For undetermined reasons, the aircraft was flying one thousand feet lower than the prescribed altitude at that point of its descent. Not surprisingly given Hammarskjöld’s celebrity status and the political turbulence in the midst of which his death occurred, all kinds of conspiracy theories about his death persisted, despite the fact that under the circumstances, the Swedish pilot’s unfamiliarity with the terrain was the most likely cause of the disaster.

Dag Hammarskjöld.

(Library of Congress)

The context in which this tragedy occurred was the chaos that broke out in the former Belgian Congo Civil wars;Congo Congo crisis (1960-1963) Postcolonialism;Congo immediately in the wake of its independence on June 30, 1960. The newly independent Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) lapsed into anarchy within days. In that vast territory, Belgium’s jewel in the crown, Hammarskjöld soon had to face a mutiny by Congolese soldiers and the collapse of internal law and order, multitribal hostility, several secessionist movements, the interplay of adversarial personalities in the country’s power structure, renewed Belgian political and military intrigue and intervention, the presence of foreign mercenaries, and the scheming and intrusion of the great powers extending their Cold War rivalry to this large, mineral-rich African country. The parameters of the conflict were nebulous and ever-changing. As Hammarskjöld explained it, the U.N. mission in the Congo was like trying to give first aid to a rattlesnake.

Indeed, at the request of Congo’s premier Patrice Lumumba and his rival and nominal superior, President Joseph Kasavubu Kasavubu, Joseph , Hammarskjöld got the world organization to approve dispatch of a peacekeeping force, the U.N. Operation in the Congo United Nations Operation in the Congo United Nations;peacekeeping United Nations;Congo crisis (UNOC), one of the largest such forces in history. The situation proved very different from the earlier Suez Canal crisis, in which there had been clearly defined enemies on two sides, enabling the U.N. Emergency Force to intervene effectively. This time, UNOC became a combatant force itself. The fighting occurred mostly in Elisabethville, Katanga’s provincial capital. It was this episode that was the prelude to Hammarskjöld’s last few fateful days in the country.

On September 13, Conor Cruise O’Brien, the U.N. representative in Katanga Province, decided to move once more as he had done on August 28 and effect a second roundup of Belgian officers and mercenaries. The August 28 roundup had been the initial cause of the fighting. O’Brien then ordered UNOC to occupy several strategic points in Elisabethville and attempted to disarm the resisting gendarmes. The clashes were bloody, and there were numerous casualties.

On hearing of these events, Hammarskjöld, who had just arrived in Léopoldville on September 12 to arrange additional U.N. aid to the Congo, got in touch with the secessionist-minded Katangan premier, Moïse Tshombe, to discuss a cease-fire. They agreed to meet on “neutral” territory, namely, at Ndola, Northern Rhodesia, because it had an airport. There, Hammarskjöld would attempt to persuade “President” Tshombe, as he wished to be called, to end the fighting and adopt a more moderate policy with respect to the new Congolese central government in Léopoldville and the United Nations itself. Hammarskjöld’s plane crashed before the meeting could take place, and the mayhem in the Congo continued.

Significance

Already, in September, 1960, at the annual opening session of the U.N. General Assembly, Soviet premier Nikita S. Khrushchev Khrushchev, Nikita S. [p]Khrushchev, Nikita S.;United Nations had unveiled his plan to have the secretary-general replaced by a troika of U.N. chief executives. This threesome would represent the Eastern, Western, and neutral blocs. Khrushchev asserted that there were no neutral individuals and that his three-member executive plan—replacing a nominally impartial secretariat with a cadre of advocates for the conflicting interests of the Cold War powers—would reduce the bias that Hammarskjöld had seemingly evidenced. Khrushchev saw the secretary-general’s Congo policies as an example of his bias, as Hammarskjöld supposedly “disorganized the life of the state and paralyzed . . . the legitimate government.” These accusations were reminiscent of those that the Soviets had leveled against Trygve Lie, Hammarskjöld’s predecessor, regarding Lie’s supposedly pro-Western bias in the U.N.-sponsored Korean War of 1950-1953.

The majority of the members of the General Assembly representing developing nations sided with Hammarskjöld in 1960. This proved a pyrrhic victory for the secretary-general, however, since the Soviets kept opposing the “United Nations Field Marshal” (as Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko had dubbed Hammarskjöld) at every turn, and the effectiveness of the secretary-general was diminished on that account.

After Hammarskjöld’s untimely death, the Soviets quietly dropped their line that he had been a colonialist stooge and just as quietly buried their plan to replace the position of secretary-general with a troika of chief executives. Rather, Hammarskjöld’s posthumous 1961 Nobel Peace Prize Nobel Peace Prize;Dag Hammarskjöld[Hammarskjöld] helped him acquire heroic stature and helped preserve the secretariat in its original form. Secretariat, U.N. United Nations;secretariat Aircraft;crashes

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bunche, Ralph J. “The United Nations Operation in the Congo.” In The Quest for Peace: The Dag Hammarskjöld Memorial Lectures, edited by Andrew W. Cordier and Wilder Foote. New York: Columbia University Press, 1965. Details UNOC’s peacekeeping mission in the Congo.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gavshon, Arthur L. The Last Days of Dag Hammarskjold. London: Pall Mall Press, 1963. One of several accounts arguing that Hammarskjöld’s death was the result of foul play.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gibbs, David N. “Dag Hammarskjold, the United Nations, and the Congo Crisis of 1960-61: A Reinterpretation.” Journal of Modern African Studies 31, no. l (1993): 163-174. Reviews several conspiracy scenarios about Hammarskjöld’s death involving Belgian mining interests in Katanga Province.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Heller, Peter B. The United Nations Under Dag Hammarskjöld, 1953-1961. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2001. Details the circumstances surrounding the secretary-general’s death in the plane crash.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Brien, Conor Cruise. Murderous Angels: A Political Tragedy and Comedy in Black and White. Boston: Little, Brown, 1968. An imaginative, perceptive account of the circumstances surrounding Hammarskjöld’s “mysterious” death in the air crash of September 18, 1961, by the U.N. representative in Katanga Province at the time. In later years, O’Brien became more convinced of skulduggery to explain the disaster.

Hammarskjöld Is Elected U.N. Secretary-General

Formation of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland

Africa’s Year of Independence

Katanga Province Secedes from Congo and Riots Ensue

United Nations Intervenes in the Congolese Civil War

Military Coup Places Mobutu in Control of Congo

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